Performance upholstery fabrics
need not come with a steep environmental cost.
New fabrics, blends and treatments are making sustainability an affordable option.
By Sigrid Tornquist
On an even playing field, when faced with a choice between an environmentally friendly upholstery fabric versus a toxic one, would anyone ever choose the toxic one? And when faced with a product that lasts a long time and stands up to dirt and abrasion versus one that wears out and needs to be replaced quickly? That choice is obvious, too.
In the past, performance upholstery often meant that sustainability took a back seat in the list of attributes. Consumers could have performance or sustainability but not both—and performance usually won. But as demand increases for sustainable performance options—especially for commercial applications—textile manufacturers are creating long-term solutions that meet criteria for both performance and sustainability. “It’s no longer true that designers must choose between performance and environmental friendliness,” says Caroline Ollivier, marketing director for Carnegie Fabrics, Rockville Center, N.Y., a textile and wallcovering manufacturer. “There are many high performance environmental offerings in the marketplace.”
Most upholstery textile suppliers agree that what clients want from performance upholstery fabric is simple—durability and flammability are key components. Fabrics for transportation, hospitals, universities, auditoriums and theaters are all high-traffic applications that take abuse, so performance is vital. “Primarily we are looking for the fabric to last as long as it can; it’s all about longevity of life,” says Paul Taylor, sustainability manager for interior textile manufacturer Camira Fabrics Ltd. in Mirfield, West Yorkshire, U.K. “Abrasion-resistance and how it holds up to wear-and-tear are important, as is flammability. In transportation, flammability is especially important.”
Hardy Sullivan, vice president of research and development for textile manufacturer Crypton® Inc., Bloomfield Hills, Mich., adds cleanability to the list. “Performance specifications need to include durability, cleanabilty and permanent resistance to odors, microbial growth and moisture penetration,” Sullivan says. “Many types of fabric and fiber performance requirements change based on end use—particularly flammability requirements.”
Shades of green
What upholstery textile manufacturers mean when they talk about sustainability is more difficult to define. It can mean a variety of things, including using more natural fibers, using bio-based synthetics, using closed-loop recycling for synthetic fabrics, minimizing and/or optimizing finishes, using less waste in production and sourcing materials from yarn suppliers that practice sustainability. Regardless of how people define the term, manufacturers are working to improve sustainable options for performance upholstery fabrics. “While there’s disagreement about shades of green, there’s no doubt that the entire industry is moving in the right direction,” Sullivan says.
Taylor agrees. “Ultimately, environment and sustainability is everything; it’s the driving force for us at Camira,” he says. “It isn’t about profit margins. We consider what the environmental legacy of our products will be.”
Everything old is new again
Natural fibers have never been entirely out of the picture, but as awareness has grown regarding environmental stewardship, researchers have once again turned to natural fibers to see how they can perform and compete with synthetic fibers.
Wool continues to be used for some upholstery applications because of its durability, flame resistance and water resistance. “We have a range called Blazer for contract seating applications, of which we sell about half a million meters a year,” Taylor says. “Each fleece is numbered so we know which sheep, which field and which farm it comes from, and we know who sheared it, where it’s been scoured and how it’s been shipped. We want to trace every last meter of the fabric so we can know how it’s been managed and that it’s pesticide-free and fully traceable.”
Some of the most innovative advances in natural fibers, however, come from the ways in which they can be combined. In 2008 Camira began using bast fibers—a generic term for a family of plants that includes nettles, hemp, jute, flax and ramie—in its upholstery fabrics. “The plants are very strong because they’re tall and spindly so they can sustain severe weather conditions,” Taylor says. “But they’re flexible as well, so they’re perfect for fiber in upholstery.”
Camira’s innovation team, whose sole purpose, Taylor says, is to “have fun and play around with blending fibers until they find something,” blended nettle fiber with wool to produce a composition that performed like a polyester in terms of abrasion and durability performance. “What surprised us was that when you blend a bast fiber with wool it becomes inherently flame-retardant so you don’t have to treat it with anything,” Taylor says. “We still don’t know exactly why this is the case, but the blend will pass every international standard on flammability. What we do know is that it forms a char very quickly, which means that the oxygen can’t get into that part of the fiber and the flame goes out.”
The blended nettle and wool product, Sting, that Camira produced in 2008 was so successful that they blended hemp fiber with wool in 2010 for a product called Hemp. “But for us that still wasn’t enough,” Taylor says. “We decided that if we wanted to guarantee our supply chain and guarantee the quality and affect sustainability, we’d have to grow it ourselves.” The result was that in 2011 Camira started its own nettle and hemp farm. The farm is 80 miles from the factory, is run by seven employees and is managed for bio-diversity.
Recycled synthetic fibers
For cleanability, synthetic fibers remain the most used, and because they don’t generally biodegrade, manufacturers keep working to improve the ways they can be recycled. Designtex, New York, N.Y.—which creates applied surface solutions, including upholstery, wallcoverings, rugs and architectural finishings—collaborated with four companies to launch a closed-loop system in June 2013. The closed loop system captures and recycles textile waste back into first-quality goods. “A lot of times fabrics can be recycled, but often that means chopping them up and pressing them into nonwovens,” says Deidre Hoguet, director of sustainability and material exploration for Designtex. “It can be a lesser value product that comes out, which is still beneficial recycling, but with this system we’re able to get it back to the same value material—durable upholstery yarn.”
Camira also has a closed-loop system that produces durable upholstery yarns. “We recognize some people still want polyester. It’s synthetic but high-performing, and it’s cheaper,” Taylor says. “We salvage the roll ends and selvedges from the weaving process, which go back to our yarn supplier to be blended into the new polyester yarns that come back to us. We’re trying to push the market away from using polyester in the first place, but for clients who choose it we try to encourage the closed-loop ranges rather than the virgin polyester products.”
Carnegie offers a Responsible Return program for Xorel—a woven polyethylene textile, which is inherently strong and stain-resistant. It is also available in a bio-based content version, in which the polyethylene is derived from sugar cane. Once the installation is taken down, clients can return the material to Carnegie, which sends it to a facility that either down-cycles the polyethylene into another product or uses it for clean energy generation.
PFCs and fabric finishes
Fabric finishes continue to be in demand to provide stain and water resistance—and an environmental challenge for manufacturers. “Our policy in regard to finishes is that no finish is the best finish,” Ollivier says. “But in the case that a fabric must be finished, we opt for a sustainable solution whenever possible.”
“More and more of our customers have their own criteria, which often include avoiding stain-resistant finishes or other chemicals of concern, asking about sustainable production, certifications and emissions,” Hoguet says. “The design teams come to us with a red list of what they don’t want. They used to be looking for criteria like recycled content, and that meant ‘green’ to them, but now they’re asking more detailed questions about how products are produced, and there is more of an emphasis on avoiding chemicals of concern.”
Since the 1950s, perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) have been used in water- and oil-repellent coatings. The EPA has been working with companies toward the elimination of long-chain PFCs (those containing eight consecutive carbons or more) from manufacturing emissions and products. PFCs are also listed as one of five chemical groups to avoid in order to maximize a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) project point score. LEED is the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) building certification program that recognizes best practices.
“Action was warranted in 2000 for perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and in 2006 for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), two PFCs of concern due to their varying levels of toxicity and bio-persistency. Fortunately, the EPA has taken action and has shown that levels found in the environment and human bloodstreams are reducing,” Sullivan says. “Unfortunately, depending on how the C8 fluortelomer is produced, PFOS and PFOA can be found at low levels as unintended byproduct. The presence of PFOS and PFOA lead to a negative bias toward all PFCs and repellent treatments. The USGBC, for example, has lumped all PFCs together, regardless of whether or not they contain specific PFCs of concern. PFCs are a wide branch of chemistry, consisting of hundreds or thousands of molecular structures. There are C6 and C4 (short chain) PFCs being used safely in many products today, including medical implants, smart phone touchscreens and repellent fabric finishes.”
Only fluorochemistry can offer both water- and oil-repellency, Sullivan says. But because of the concerns, Crypton recently developed C Zero, a nonfluorinated, water-repellent finish that offers repellency to drink spills and rain. “While Crypton believes in the safety of its fluorinated products, we acknowledge that fluorochemistry is persistent. For this reason C Zero was developed as the best nonfluorinated alternative,” Sullivan says.
An additional concern with using finishes has to do with recycling the fabrics. “Stain-resistant finishes compromise the ability for fabrics to be recycled or biodegrade,” Hoguet says. “We do have them and make them available, but another option we prefer to promote, where high-performance is needed, is to use solution-dyed fabrics. It uses less water in the process and the solution locks in the fabric’s dyes, resulting in a more durable product. It can be used in health care applications because it can be bleach-cleaned.” Hoguet explains that nylon solution-dyed fabrics are more available currently, but the company is beginning to produce solution-dyed polyester and is actively looking for more alternatives to adding finishes.
With consumer knowledge and demand still increasing for environmental alternatives, the options for performance upholstery fabrics that can be considered sustainable are increasing, thanks to manufacturers that are dedicating the resources to create them. There’s still room for growth, but industry suppliers are working toward even more sustainable solutions.